News Without the Bells and Whistles

These are the Mercedes-Benz CL600 days of television news.

These are the days when pictures grow in size or shrink in size and swoop into and out of one another like birds on an urgent mission. These are the days when computers create graphs that turn from 2-D to 3-D in the blink of an eye, and create maps around which a camera seems to rotate 360 degrees as the countries rise and fall from the surface.

These are the days when the photographs behind the anchors are not really there and, sometimes, neither are the sets upon which they set.

These are, in other words, the days when broadcast journalism seems almost to have caught up to action-adventure movies in the quality of their special effects.

This column is about the Ford Model-T days of television news.

Actually, the first newscasts on TV were more like lectures in a classroom. It was CBS which presented them, back in the early 1940s, and a reporter named Richard Hubbell who delivered them. Hubbell stood with a pointer in his hand and a map, drawn in chalk on a blackboard, behind him. As he told about the news from one country, he tapped the appropriate location on the blackboard; as he told about another, he moved the pointer and tapped again.

As Mitchell Stephens points out in his book, A History of News, "Picture quality was so poor that it was difficult to make out Hubbell, let alone the map."

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, CBS devoted most of its resources to broadcasting the information on radio. But there were a few Americans who had TVs at the time — virtually all of them in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. — and for these men and women, CBS did the best it could visually. As an announcer read the news of the sneak attack, the camera in the network’s lone and tiny studio zoomed in on an American flag, which was blowing in the breeze created by a rickety old fan that had been placed just out of sight of the lens. Unspecial effects.

Both of these events preceded my debut on the planet. But as a very young child, I remember watching the Camel News Caravan with John Cameron Swayze, perhaps TV’s first famous anchor, who sat at a desk behind a Camel cigarettes sign and read the news in something approaching a monotone as wispy columns of tobacco smoke drifted up around and behind him.

Swayze was a devoted user of his sponsor’s products, and kept one going at all times; when he took a break for a commercial or a few seconds of a filmed report, he puffed away on it as energetically as one of today’s teenagers trying to suck a McDonald’s milkshake through a straw.

CBS’s Douglas Edwards was the most enduring of the early TV news anchors, but something about his performance did not seem right to his director, Don Hewitt. (Yes, the same Don Hewitt created 60 Minutes and still serves as its guiding light.) Eye contact, that was it, Hewitt decided. Edwards wasn’t making enough eye contact with the audience; he kept looking down at the script, concentrating too much on the words and not enough on the people watching him at home.

Hewitt could not figure out what to do. Neither could Edwards. Finally, the former came up with an idea. Pretend you’re blind, Hewitt told his anchor; we’ll do the script in Braille and you learn to read it.

Edwards said no.

Today, we have teleprompters in TV news studios, so eye contact is not a problem. We also have an entire galaxy of other devices which make anchors look knowledgeable and polished and the programs over which they preside appear sleek and smooth and as dazzling to the eye as a silver-gray CL600 with a 5.8L 36-valve V-12 engine and 362 horses.

If only serious and responsible content were standard equipment.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .

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